things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #14

One of our regular Readers' Den customers approached me with her usual long list of movies. She researches movies online, prints out lists, and comes to the desk to see what we have in our collection. Anything we have, we place on hold for her.

She's a great customer, in terms of library use. She has an intellectual disability, and sometimes helping her can be a bit of a challenge. 

This customer talks very fast, and a little too loudly. While you're searching for one item, she's rattling off the next few, so after placing each hold, you must ask her to repeat the next title. Because she's reading from a list, the effect is a constant stream of chatter, from which you must pick out the movie titles.

After we had exhausted her movie list, she asked, "Is there a way I can do this myself, put on holds, from home?"

I know she uses a computer to research movies, and I know she checks her library account online to see which holds are available. I told her, yes, definitely, she can do this from home, and I'll show her how right now. She made some self-deprecating remarks. It was apparent that the prospect of learning something new was stressful for her.

We went to one of the public catalogue computers. I asked her if she knew how to log in to her own account, and she did that with ease. I asked her to search for a movie title, and she did that. Then I showed her how to place the item on hold. We did that a few times, and then she started talking.

"Want to hear a really sad story?" she asked. On the radio, a woman was talking about her son, a teenager. "He's like me," the customer said. "He's slow." At school, instead of being in class, the boy was working in the cafeteria, and washing teachers' cars. His mother didn't know. He was afraid to tell her, fearing he would get in trouble for skipping class. None of the teachers came forward to tell the boy's parents. Another special-needs student told her parents, who told this woman. 

Her son was being used as a slave. He was being deprived of an education, and working, without pay. Pretty clear human rights violations. Teachers and school administrators allowed this to go on - later, of course, claiming ignorance.

The customer said, "I thought those days were over. When I was in school, they used to call us re-tards, they kept us in a special class, they didn't teach us anything, they thought, why bother to teach these re-tards. But I can learn. I can learn. It just takes me more time. My brother taught me to use a computer." Then she said, "I could teach this boy. I wish I knew him, I would teach him, I would show him that if I can learn, he can learn, too."

I was struggling to maintain some professional distance, to avoid tears. 

Later, I looked for the story online, but realized it was not necessarily recent. The customer might have heard this story anytime. Because she identified so strongly and felt so compassionately towards the boy in the story, the story remained fresh to her. 

I wondered, too, about her earlier self-disparaging remarks, wondered what had ingrained anxiety and fear so deeply that the mention of learning - anything - triggered that response. 

* * * *

Back at the information desk, I learned from a colleague that some staff find this customer somewhat annoying. I don't at all, and the colleague who shared this with me - who also loves movies and enjoys helping this customer - doesn't either. She reminded me that we all have our own irritations, different buttons that customers unknowingly push. 

I would like to take this more generous view of my co-workers... but I can't. Bias against people with disabilities is rampant. I feel so strongly about our library being accessible to as broad a range of people as possible, and I see how this customer needs us. Hearing that some staff dislike her raised my hackles.

I later wondered if perhaps the customer already knows how to place holds, and perhaps just wanted to extend our interaction. Or perhaps she knows how to search the catalogue but is still wary of taking another step. Either way, it's okay with me. That's what we're there for.


johngoldfine said...

When I was in school, they used to call us re-tards, they kept us in a special class, they didn't teach us anything, they thought, why bother to teach these re-tards. But I can learn. I can learn. It just takes me more time.

'Re-tahd' is still a fighting word in Maine playgrounds, despite it not being in official use.

My wife was once a home-teacher, working with a woman and her grand-daughter. The woman said about her granddaughter, "She ain't re-tahded; she's just slow."

Which shows how pointless educationese labels are and also how words can shape-shift: moron, imbecile, idiot, cretin, retarded were all originally intended to be descriptive and neutral. But every descriptive term for an intellectual or developmental disability (including "intellectual or developmental disability") will eventually turn pejorative and become a bully's taunt.

I can sympathize pretty easily with your colleagues who find the customer difficult because in my own classrooms these disabled students sucked up the most time, energy, and patience, often with very little, apparently, to show for that investment.

It went well for you, you connected, you helped, you made each other's day--all wonderful. But my strength was working with bad actors, troublemakers, outliers, eccentrics, and school-haters, not people like the woman you describe, and I would have dreaded seeing her come into class.

Believe me, I know how bad that "dreaded" sounds, how much like a set-up for failure, how much that dread feeds into a vicious cycle and a self-fulfilling prophecy. I consciously and conscientiously fought against all that, but, as I say, sometimes my patience wore thin.

One of my favorite insights into teaching (and you were acting as a teacher with this woman) I found while researching Victorian penology. A retiring prison chaplain is asked how many prisoners he has brought to Christ in his long career.

"Actually, none, none at all."

"But, padre, how can that be? You've been here so long!"

"Well, to actually bring a prisoner to Christ, I'd have needed a better class of prisoner."

Ha ha, I love that joke!--how many idiot teachers in teachers' lounges did I listen to in 42 years who claimed that the only thing wrong in their classrooms was their stupid, lazy students! How many? A shitload ton! Boohoo, they wanted a better class of prisoner!

So, I'm not saying that, and I'm not arguing against mainstreaming students or giving up on students who have trouble learning or anything at all like that. I'm just saying I had trouble with students like your library customer.

laura k said...

I can well understand your issues. I might have them, too. The difference is the person at the information desk has to deal with this woman for about 10 minutes, every few weeks, at most. They should be able to rise to the occasion. (And, in most cases, they do.)

The word "re-tard" was the same when I was growing up, only it was pronounced re-tawd. Of course all the euphemisms become insults, but no one is going to use the words intellectual disability or development disability as an insult. They take too long to say!

laura k said...

Also John, I didn't mean to be glib or dismissive of your point. My mother was a teacher, and she talked about similar issues. She was not in favour of mainstreaming, thought it was a disservice to both special-needs students and the rest of the class. So I do hear you.

I don't think that should apply to library workers, though!

karen said...

My own public library seems to be staffed by a large concentration of people who like books and quiet, but don't care very much for people at all. Except for the staff who check out my books and the wonderful woman at the children's desk (who still treats me like a friend even though my child is 25) it's a pretty uniformly unfriendly experience at my library.

laura k said...

My own public library seems to be staffed by a large concentration of people who like books and quiet, but don't care very much for people at all.

That's terrible! And very old school. With any luck those folks are nearing retirement age, the kind of people who, as I like to say, would love working in the library if it weren't for all the customers.

Modern librarianship is all about customer service. We don't even shush anymore.

karen said...

Yeah, the younger and newer people are more helpful and friendly, but my library visits are solitary forays rather than interaction in my community. For the longest time I just thought that's how libraries were!
I really enjoy your posts about your library. They make me feel hopeful.

laura k said...

Wow, that is bad. Bad for the community and bad for the libraries, too. The only way public libraries are going to survive is by reinventing themselves as community hubs.

You are in the prairies?

laura k said...

Oh no, that's another Karen. You're in BC, I think.

karen said...

Yes. North central BC.
Not that I would ever give up, though. I love books and I like the whole notion of libraries.

laura k said...

Me too. :)

Amy said...

Bravo to you, Laura. When I think back on how awful we were as kids, using terms like Retard to insult each other, it makes me cringe. We've come a long way, but not all of us have your patience and ability to empathize.

laura k said...

Amy, that's very nice of you to say. I think anyone in my position should be able to do the same, but perhaps I should be more sympathetic to my co-workers. There are certainly customers who push my buttons! You've heard about a few. :)